Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Swing Hostess (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had watched a quite delightful movie we’d got as a download from Swing Hostess, a 1944 PRC vehicle for former Benny Goodman band singer Martha Tilton as she tried for a solo career on both stage and screen. Later she’d appear as a moll in the 1945 PRC gangster film Crime, Inc. but this time around she’s in a straightforward musical in which she plays Judy Alvin, an aspiring singer who lives in a boarding house that seems to be a combination of Stage Door and You Can’t Take It With You. She’s got a piano-playing boyfriend, Joe Sweeney (Earle Bruce, a surprisingly hunky young man for a male role in a PRC movie), and a roommate, Marge O’Day (Iris Adrian), who’s determined to get her an audition with the great bandleader Benny Jackson (Charles Collins) — the character name seems to be an “in” joke on the name of Tilton’s former employer, except that unlike Benny Goodman, Benny Jackson just conducts his band and doesn’t play an instrument himself. The first time Jackson is distracted when his band’s entire library of sheet music gets diverted in transit; the second time Joe gets Judy to make a record, but by mistake another track on the master disc is used to record the audition of Phoebe Forbes (Betty Brodel), “protégée” of management executive Fralick (Harry Holman, playing the sort of lecherous old man Guy Kibbee regularly portrayed in the Warners musicals of the 1930’s), who has virtually no voice at all but is convinced that she’s really singing on Judy’s record because “nobody who hears their first record recognizes their own voice.”

The record is released under Phoebe’s name and she gets the big job opening at the nightclub owned by Spumoni (Paul Porcasi, doing his usual neurotic-Italian act) with Benny Jackson’s band — even though in the meantime Jackson has started dating Judy but without any idea that she can sing or that she’s the real voice on “Phoebe’s” record. I thought the writers, Louise Russell and Gail Davenport, were steering the story towards Phantom Broadcast territory and would do a payoff in which Judy would be dragooned into singing at the nightclub opening from backstage while Phoebe lip-synched to her in front of the band — but eventually the whole thing gets sorted out and Judy gets the job she deserves and also the love of Benny Jackson, though quite frankly in the latter department I wished she’d have declared she’s going to wait for her hunky piano player to return from World War II, since he’d been drafted in an earlier sequence. Though the title Swing Hostess is a bit of a misnomer — not only does Tilton’s character not work as a hostess (in either the legitimate or not-so-legitimate senses of the term) but the music she sings is light pop rather than swing (the songs were written by Jerry Livingston, Ray Evans and Lewis Bellin, and while Bellin’s career went nowhere Livingston and Evans went to Paramount and wrote plenty of major songs for major talents there) — the film itself is a delight from start to finish and Tilton proves a personable leading lady even though it’s clear why she didn’t work up to mega-stardom the way a subsequent Goodman band singer, Peggy Lee, did.